Ambition–An Argument

“I know that I travels slow,” said the Chronic Loafer, “but ’hen a felly
travels fast, it keeps him so busy watchin’ the horses, he sees mighty
leetle o’ the country an’ gits awful jolted besides. It’s a heap sight
better to go slow, stoppin’ at a stream to fish trout, or in the woods to
take a bang at a coon, or at the store fer a leetle discussion–it’s a
heap sight easier.”

He was sitting at the end of the porch, his back against the pillar; one
leg stretched along the floor, the bare foot resting on its heel and
wiggling to and fro in unison with his words; the other leg hanging down
and swinging backward and forward like a pendulum.

The Patriarch had the end of the bench nearest him. Next sat the Miller
meditatively chewing his forefinger. Then there was the Tinsmith smoking
thoughtfully, and beside him, a stranger. This last person was a young
man. His jaunty golf cap, fresh pink shirt, spotless duck trousers and
canvas shoes marked him as a barbarian. In fact he had swooped down from
the mountains to the north but a few days before on a bicycle, taken
board at the Shoemaker’s, fixed a short briar pipe between his teeth
and seated himself on the bench. At first he had been coldly received.
The Store was suspicious. It closed its mouth and waited until it could
find out something of the character of the newcomer. He volunteered no
explanation, but sat and smoked. The Store grew desperate. At length it
could stand the suspense no longer and nudged the stranger and inquired
if he might not be a detective? The stranger laughed, said no, and busied
himself with the making of smoke rings. Three days passed. Then the Store
allowed maybe he might not be a drummer? No, he was not a drummer. The
mystery was deepening. There were two things he was not. Now the Store
smoked and smoked, and watched the mountains many days, until it had
drawn an inspiration therefrom. It winked at the young man and guessed he
had run away from his wife. But the stranger answered that he had never

Knowing that he was not a detective, a drummer, or a fugitive from some
domestic hearthstone, the Store felt that it had learned something of his
history and could afford to melt just a little. So now it was talking
before him.

As the Loafer finished speaking, the stranger drew forth a leather case,
carefully tucked his pipe away in it and returned it to his pocket. Then
he remarked calmly, “I cannot agree with you. What would the world be
to-day if all men held such ideas as you?”

The Patriarch, the Miller and the Tinsmith pricked up their ears and
gazed at the speaker. At last the truth would be out.

The Loafer saw his opportunity.

“What do you do fer a livin’?” he asked.

“I’m a college man,” was the bland reply.

Drawing his pendulum leg up on the porch, the Loafer clasped both knees
in his arms. “Well,” he drawled, “I ’low ef you is a kawledge man, they
ain’t nawthin’ young enough to be a kawledge boy, is they?”

The Patriarch dropped his cane, clasped his hands to his fat sides,
leaned back so that his head rested against the wall, and gagged. The
Tinsmith and the Storekeeper laughed so loud that the School Teacher
tossed aside the county paper and came running to the door to inquire
what the joke was.

“I’m blessed ef I know,” said the Miller, he being the only one of the
party who had retained his powers of speech. He laid a hand on the
student’s knee and asked, “Did you make a joke?”

But the young man had dived into his pocket and got out his pipe again,
and was busy filling it and lighting it and smoking it, by this act
asserting his manhood. He now joined good-naturedly in the laughter.

“How much does a kawledge man git a week?” asked the Loafer. “It must pay
pretty well, jedgin’ from your clothes.”

“He gets nothing,” was the reply. “I am studying, preparing myself for my
work in life.”

“My, oh, my!” murmured the Patriarch. “Preparin’–preparin’? Why, ’hen I
was your age I was prepared long ago. I was in full, complete charge o’
me father’s saw-mill.”

The student was nettled, not at the reflection on his own intellectual
attainments which this remark seemed to contain, but he felt that in
this company he was the representative of modern ideas, of education and
enlightenment. The Middle Ages were attacking the Nineteenth Century,
and it was his duty to combat the forces of Ignorance. So he removed
his briar from his mouth and sent a ring of smoke floating away on the
listless air. He watched it intently as it passed out from the shelter of
the porch into the great world, and grew broader and bigger and finally
disappeared altogether. There was something very impressive in the young
man’s act. His voice had fallen an octave when he turned to address the

“Had I chosen a saw-mill as my career, I think I too should have long
since been prepared for it. But to fit oneself for work in the world as
a lawyer, a doctor, a minister, requires preparation. It takes years of

“How many?” asked the Loafer, turning around and eyeing the student over
his knees.

“Well, I’ll be twenty-four when I get through studying and become a

“Then what’ll ye do?”

“I’ll work at my profession and make money.”

“How long’ll ye do that?”

“Why, I don’t know particularly–till I have a fair fortune, I suppose.”

“How old’ll ye be then?”

“Around sixty, I guess.”

“Then what’ll ye do?”

“What does every man do eventually? Die.”

“Then ye’ve spent all them years learnin’ to die, eh? Does a felly go off
any easier ef his head is crammed full of algebray or physical g’ography?
Mighty souls! Why my pap couldn’t ’a’ tol’ ye, ef ye dewided an apple in
two halves an’ et one how many was left, yit ’hen his time come he jest
emptied out his ole pipe, leaned back in his rocker, stretched his feet
toward the fire an’ went.”

“Well, what are you tryin’ to prove anyway?” asked the Teacher, who had
seated himself on an egg-crate. His furrowed brow, one closed eye and
forefinger resting on his chin, showed that he was struggling hard to
catch the thread of the discussion.

“I was jest sayin’ that the best life, the sensiblest life, was the slow
easy-goin’ one, ’hen this young man conterdicted me,” said the Loafer.

His air was very condescending and it angered the student. The
inquisition just ended had left him in a rather equivocal position, he
could see by the way the Patriarch and the Tinsmith nodded their heads.

“You misunderstood me,” he said. “You have shown, I see, that from a
purely selfish standpoint, ambition is senseless. In the end the man who
works hard is no better off than the man who loafs. But remember there is
another call–duty.”

“That’s the idee,” cried the Teacher. “The sense of duty moves the world

“Hol’ on!” the Loafer exclaimed. “Hol’ on! Duty to who?”

“Why, duty to society,” the student, answered. “Every man is endowed with
certain faculties, and it is his duty to use those faculties to the best
of his ability for the advancement of himself and his fellow-man.”

“Certainly–certainly,” said the pedagogue. “It’s the old parable of the
talents all over agin.”

“Yes, they is some argyment in that,” said the Loafer. “Yit they ain’t.
Pap allus used to say that too many fellys was speckilatin’ in their
talents, an’ ’hen their employer called an accountin’ they was only able
to pass in a lot o’ counterfeit coin.”

“But suppose all men sat down and folded their hands and lived as you
would have them. What would happen?” asked the college man.

“D’ye see yon pastur’ down there?” The Loafer pointed his thumb over his
shoulder, indicating the meadow below the bridge, where half a score of
cattle were grazing.

The student nodded. The bony forefinger was pointed at him now.

“Well, now s’posin’ ye was a hog an’—-”

“I object to such a supposition,” was the angry retort.

“Well then s’posin’, jest fer argyment–ye know ye can s’pose anything
’hen ye argy–s’posin’ ye was a cow. Yon fiel’ ’ll pastur’ ten head o’
cattle comf’table all summer, ’lowin’ they is easy-goin’ an’ without no
ambition. Now you uns gits the high-flyin’ idee ye must dewelop your
heaven-given faculties fer the benefit o’ your sufferin’ fellys. The main
talent a cow has is that o’ eatin’; so ye dewelop it be grazin’ night an’
day. ’Hen the other cows is friskin’ up an’ down the meadow or splashin’
’round the creek, you are nibblin’ off the choice grass an’ digestin’ all
the turnip tops ye can reach th’oo the holes in the fence. Mebbe you’ll
git to be a slicker animal, but fer the life o’ me, I can’t see how
you’re benefitin’ the rest o’ the cattle.”

“See here,” interrupted the Miller, “you are the onsenselessest
argyer I ever set eyes on. Ye starts but on edycation an’ lands up on

“No–no, you misunderstand him,” said the student. “His method of
argument is all right, but it seems that the figure is bad. It doesn’t
quite apply. Every man who leads an industrious, upright life, every man
who in so doing prospers and raises himself, does an incalculable service
to the community in which he lives. His example inspires others.”

“I jedge, then,” replied the Loafer, “that this here petickler cow
we’ve ben speakin’ of, in eatin’ night an’ day an’ fattenin’ itself, is
elewatin’ the rest o’ the cattle be its example. They’ll be encouraged to
quit sloshin’ ’round the creek an’ friskin’ ’bout the pastur’ an’ ’ll be
after grass night an’ day, an’ the grass’ll git skeercer an’ they’ll take
to buttin’ one another, an’ your efforts at elewatin’ ’em ends in turnin’
a peaceful pastur’ inter a battle-fiel’.”

The student sent three rings of smoke whirling from his mouth in rapid
succession, but he made no reply.

“Did ye ever hear o’ Zebulon Pole?” asked the Loafer.

“I never did. But what has he to do with this matter?”

“Zebulon Pole was a livin’ answer to it, he was. He used to have a
shanty up in Buzzard Walley near me an’ Pap, an’ was young an’ full o’
all them noble idees. No–he wasn’t allus full of ’em. They hed ben a
time ’hen he was easy-goin’ an’ happy, askin’ nawthin’ better o’ his
Maker than a trout stream, a hook an’ a line, an’ a place to borry a
shot-gun. All o’ a sudden he bloomed out full o’ ambition an’ high
notions. He hed a call. He was wastin’ his life loafin’ ’long the creeks
or settin’ day after day on a lawg, whistlin’ fer wild turkeys. The world
needed Zebulon Pole, an’ he answered by comin’ out ez candidate fer
superwisor. He was elected. From that day the citizens o’ our township
hed no peace. They’d allus ben used to goin’ out on the roads in the
spring, stickin’ their shovels in the groun’, leanin’ on ’em an’ gittin’
paid a dollar a day fer it. The new superwisor was ambitious, an’ the
good ole system o’ makin’ roads seemed a thing o’ the past. So the boys
put their heads together an’ concided that a man o’ Pole’s parts was too
good fer his place an’ should hev a higher an’ nobler job. They made him
a school-director, an’ leaned on their shovels oncet more an’ drawed a
dollar a day fer it ez usual.

“Zebulon hed never gone beyant the Third Reader in school or th’oo
fractions, an’ yit ’hen he become a school-director, he seen the hand
o’ a higher power instead o’ the wotes o’ citizens who wasn’t agin
improvin’ the roads, but was agin hevin’ it done ’hen they was workin’
out their road tax. He was called to the service o’ his felly-man. He was
sacrificin’ his own happiness, givin’ up his fishin’ an’ huntin’ that he
might dewote his life to helpin’ others. He hedn’t ben school-director a
month tell he concided it was an honor, a great honor, yit the sphwere
was too narrer fer a man o’ his talents. Zebulon Pole was learnin’. He’d
found out they was better an’ higher things in this worl’ then a mountain
stream full o’ trout, a soft bed o’ moss on the bank, a half cloudy day,
a pipe an’ a hook an’ line. He’d found out they was nobler things, so he
come out ez candidate fer county commissioner, ’lowin’ that after that
he’d be Gov’nor, an’ then Presydent. But the woters remembered how they’d
over-exerted themselves in his days ez superwisor; they minded how in his
first week ez school-director, he’d changed the spellin’ book an’ cost
’em twenty-five cents a head fer every blessed child in the district.
They jest snowed him under. He was plain Zeb Pole agin. He’d tasted the
sweets o’ power an’ lost his appytite fer fishin’. His hopes o’ bein’
Presydent was gone. They was nawthin’ left fer him to look for’a’d to but

The student shook his head gravely.

“There is some argument in what you have been saying,” he said slowly.
“I admit that. But you know your ideas are not new. You simply carry one
back to the Stoics of Greece.”

The Loafer was puzzled. “What did you say they was?” he asked.

“The Stoics of Greece. You remind me of the Stoics of Greece.”

“Is that a complyment or a name?” The Loafer leaned sharply forward and
thrust his long chin toward the speaker ominously.

“Why, a compliment,” was the reply. “The Stoics were a great school of
philosophers. They taught simplicity in life. Diogenes was a Stoic.”

“Who?” asked the Patriarch, bending over and fixing his hand to his ear.


“D’ogenes–D’ogenes,” said the old man. He paused; then added,
“D’ogenes–yes, I’ve heard the name but I can’t exactly place him.”

“Well, you certainly never met him,” said the collegian. “He lived a
couple of thousand years ago in Athens. His idea was to get as close as
possible to nature, so he lived in a tub.”

“Didn’t they hev no suylums in them days?” asked the Loafer.

“Diogenes wasn’t crazy,” cried the student. “He was a great philosopher.
They tell one story of how he went walking around Athens carrying a
lantern in broad daylight. When asked what he was doing, he said he was
looking for an honest man.”

“What was the lantern fer?” the Miller inquired.

“Why, he was looking for an honest man,” shouted the collegian.

“I s’pose it never struck him to go to the store fer one,” drawled the

“You miss the point–the whole of you. Diogenes was a man who spurned
the material things of this world. He tried to forget the body in the
development of the mind and soul, so he lived in a tub, and—-”

“See here, young felly,” interrupted the Loafer, “fer an argyer you beat
the band. First off ye conterdicted me fer sayin’ a man should take his
time. Now ye come ’round my way, only worse. I never sayd a man should
keep house in a tub. Why, his missus ’ud never give him no peace. No,
sir; don’t ye git no fool idees like that in your head.”

“But that is the truest philosophy—-”

“I know. Zebulon Pole got that wery idee after he was defeated fer
county commissioner. He moped ’round the walley fer a year an’ final
one day come to me an’ sayd he was goin’ to dewote the rest o’ his life
to religious medytation. ‘It’s less trouble to git to heaven then the
White House,’ he sayd, ‘fer a good deed is easier to do then an opposin’
candidate.’ It happened that at this time they hed ben a woman preacher
holdin’ bush-meetin’s in our walley an’ he was a reg’lar attendant. She
pounded away at wanity. All was wanity, she sayd. They wasn’t nawthin’
in this world wuth livin’ fer. Fine houses, fine clothes, slick buggies,
fast horses, low-cut waist-coats–all them things was extrys which was
no more needed fer man’s sperritual comfort then napkins fer his bodily
nourishment. It didn’t take long fer them idees to spread in our walley,
an’ Pole was one o’ the first to catch ’em. I mind comin’ home from
fishin’ one day, I seen him a-settin’ on a fence chewin’ a straw an’
watchin’ the clouds scootin’ ’long overhead.

“‘Ho, Zeb!’ I sais, shakin’ a nice string o’ trout under his nose. ‘Why
ain’t ye out? They’s bitin’ good.’

“He looks at me outen the corner o’ his eye wery solemn.

“‘Fishin’?’ he sais.

“‘Yes, fishin’,’ I yells, kind o’ s’prised. ‘They’s bitin’ good.’

“‘All them things is wanity,’ sais he, straightenin’ up an’ pintin’ a
finger o’ scorn at me. ‘Wanity o’ wanities. Let me warn ye, man. I’ve
give up all them worldly pleasures. I’m set on higher things.’

“‘Six-rail fences,’ I answers, ‘all day long–chewin’ a straw–watchin’
clouds–wery elewatin’.’

“He give me a sad look.

“‘What are ye doin’ now?’ sais I, not intendin’ to be put down even ef he
hed ben school director.

“‘I’m a lily,’ he sais. ‘I’m followin’ the words o’ that dear sister who
has cast her lot among us. Henceforth I no longer considers the morrer. I
toil not, nuther spin.’

“‘See here, Zeb,’ sais I. ‘You ain’t a bit my idee of a lily.’

“‘I don’t ast the approval o’ the world,’ sais he.

“‘An’ ye wouldn’t git it ef ye did,’ sais I. ‘But still I s’pose ye might
do pretty well in this new ockypation ef it wasn’t fer one thing.’

“‘What’s that?’ he asts.

“‘Lilies don’t use tobacker,’ I answers.

“That kind o’ jolted him. His eyes opened wide, an’ I seen a few tears.

“‘I never thot o’ that,’ sais he.

“‘Oh, it’s unimportant,’ sais I. ‘You’ll make a fair lily. It’ll come
hard fer ye first off, after your last suit of clothes is wore out.
Let’s hope that happens in summer so ye’ll break in fer winter easier.
You’ll git used to not eatin’,’ I sais. ‘Eatin’ is wanity. An’ ez fer
tobacker–I never seen a lily smokin’. But still, Zeb, ’hen ye runs out
o’ cut an’ dried, they is allus a placet ye can git a leetle ’hen ye
takes a rest from bloomin’ in the fiels.’

“That wery night Zebulon ’cepted my inwite an’ come over to our placet
an’ got a handful o’ cut an’ dried. He borryed a loaf o’ bread an’ a
can’le beside. I didn’t begrudge it a bit. Nuther did Pap. But this lily
business begin spreadin’, an’ all o’ Hen Jossel’s folks tuk to toilin’
not nuther spinin’, ’long o’ Herman Brewbocker’s family an’ Widdy Spade
an’ half a dozen others. They was dependin’ on us fer flour, matches,
tobacker an’ sech wanities, an’ it come a leetle hard. We stood it a
month but things got goin’ from bad to worse. They wasn’t a day passed
’thout a lily or two droppin’ in at our placet an’ ’lowin’ mebbe we
mightn’t like to loan a piece o’ ham, a tin o’ zulicks or a bit o’ oil.
It worrit Pap terrible.

“One night I come home from store an’ found all the doors locked. The
shutters was tight closed an’ they was no sign o’ life ’cept a leetle bit
o’ smoke dancin’ up an’ down on the chimbley top. I give a loud knock.
They was no answer. I knocked agin an’ yelled. The garret winder slid up
an’ out come the bawrel o’ a gun, then Pap’s head.

“‘Hello!’ sais he. ‘Is you a friend or a lily o’ the walley?’

“‘Pap,’ I sais, ‘it’s your own lovin’ son,’ sais I. ‘Don’t leave me out
here unprotected, the prey to the next lily that comes along lookin’
where-withal he shall borrer.’

“The ole man opened the door an’ let me in. Then he locked it agin an’
barred it. He picked up his musket wery solemn like an’ run the rammer
down the bawrel to show it was loaded half way to the muzzle.

“‘They was ten lilies here, one after the other, to-day,’ he sais.
‘They’ve left us the bed, the dough tray, three chairs, a table, an’ a
few odds an’ ends. ’Hen I seen the last foot o’ our sausage disappearin’
down the road under Widdy Spade’s arm I made a wow. The next lily that
blooms about this clearin’ gits its blossoms blowed off.’

“It didn’t take long fer the news o’ Pap’s wow to fly from one eend of
Buzzard Walley to the other. Zeb Pole got a job in the saw-mill. Hen
Jossel went back to bark-peelin’ an’ cuttin’ ties. Widdy Spade planted
her garden.”

“Well,” exclaimed the Miller, as the Loafer closed his account of the
idiosyncracies of Zebulon Pole, “I can’t see any way why your pap was
raisin’ sech fool things ez lilies. They’s only good to look at.”

“I understand that all right,” said the student. “What I want to know is,
what have you demonstrated by all this talk?”

“I ain’t demonstratened nawthin’,” replied the Loafer. “You conterdicted
me because I sayd a man should travel slow an’ take things easy in this
world, an’ I proved that them ez travels fast is fools, gainin’ nawthin’
in the eend fer themselves or other folks. Then ye switches right ’round
an’ adwises livin’ in a tub. I showed ye what that led to.”

“Then are we all to commit suicide?”

“No. Travel comf’table th’oo this world. Travel slow but allus keep
movin’. Ye can see the country ez ye go, stoppin’ now an’ then to fish
trout, or take a bang at a coon, or at the store to discuss a leetle.
Don’t live too fast–don’t live too slow–live mejum.”